Culture Rover

#40 - Phishing at the Boardwalk

One of the best concert reviews of 2004: Kalefa Senneh's commentary on Phish's performance at Coney Island in June (New York Times, Monday, 21 June 2004) as the band neared the completion of their farewell tour.

"Phish is breaking up, and you probably don't care," Senneh wrote in a classic lead sentence. "Unless you're a member of that band's large but limited cult," he continued to explain, noting that most music fans have probably never seen the band live, bought an album, or read about the group.

"Large but limited" -- that's an odd characterization. It speaks to the strange, other-worldly existence of Phish, which could seem so outside the mainstream yet somehow not marginalized and peripheral. Is the truth that Phish's fan base was "large but limited" because it came from the most elite stratas of United States society: from the carefully protected precincts of white, upper-middle-class suburbia and its college extension campuses?

This seemed to be the notion at which Senneh was hinting. Brilliantly, he demonstrated in the review how the elite basis of Phish's existence did not cut it off from the rest of society or music. At this KeySpan Park performance (in the new stadium for the Mets' ersatz-Brooklyn Dodgers minor league baseball farm team, the Brooklyn Cyclones), none other than the rapper Jay-Z showed up to perform his hit, "99 Problems." Senneh noticed that the Phish-heads let out a roar about a Jay-Z quip concerning illegal substances. Across all sorts of class and race lines, I suppose we like our drugs.

But beyond these momentary points of connection, Senneh critiqued the world of Phish for reducing pop's messy power. Most of all, the "large but limited cult" of Phish ignores the drama of pop music. "To love Phish you have to give up on a lot. ...You have to give up on the singer as a character: a prophet, a lover, a sign of the times, a wreck. You have to give up on politics and demographics. You have to give up on fashion and fads, controversy and choreography, hookups and haircuts. ...Some fans might be glad to be rid of these distractions, but for most of us they are a big part of why we love music. These distractions are our pop culture: they help us attach meaning to songs; they help us connect all the fragments we hear every day, giving us reasons to swoon and rant and argue...."

What Senneh implied, though never stated outright, was that if you come from the elite spheres of society, safely protected, the world yours to inherit, you probably don't need the drama of pop. In fact, you might want to pretend the drama doesn't exist at all. Or at the very least you might want to lampoon it, dull it, and distance yourself from it. If you don't need the drama, if the drama scares you, hide behind a web of improvisational noodling, gimmickry, and absurdist humor. Only from the perch of the benefactor and philanthropist, where Ben and Jerry's never tasted so good, does the drama seem safe.

As Senneh departed the concert for Coney Island's boardwalk, he left Phish's vacuum-sealed safety behind. "The soft strains of Phish were soon overwhelmed by the usual sights and sounds of Coney Island: pina coladas in plastic vases, barkers barking, cheap speakers blasting thug-love ballads. If you hadn't known, you would never have guessed that not far away, thousands of Phish fans were stumbling out into the New York night together, one last time."

6 January 2005

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